Featured Image: Corner on the KKH with the Passu Glacier in the background, Passu, Pakistan 1995
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 June 2022
This is the seventh article in travelling the Karakorum Highway series. The others are: 1 The Karakorum Highway (KKH), 2 The Lower Karakorum Highway, 3 Besham to Gilgit, the Terrain, 4 Extreme Polo in Gilgit, 5 The Hunza Valley, 6 Rain Danger, Sust. The Kashgar Sunday Market article is also relevant.
Passu Paradise, Pakistan: Our Trip 6, 1995
If the Hunza Valley is paradise, Passu in Gojal, Pakistan is a little bit of paradise. I covered Hunza my second last article the Hunza Valley, Pakistan: Our Trip 4.
In my last article Rain Danger, Sust I said that we passed though Passu in the rain it: looked like the end of the earth and one wondered why anyone would bother staying there.
On our way to China, the whole area was wet and dismal and no mountains were to be seen. But, on our return to Passu on 14 June, 1995 not only could we see the scenery but the weather was hot and with little wind over the three days we stayed there.
My journal says:
The stunning thing about arriving in Sust (or Sost), the Pakistan border entry point, in sunshine was that the landscape was beautiful. We saw mountains that were not visible in bad weather. Seven of us travelled to Passu in an open jeep (30R each) giving us stunning views.
We’d spent eight days together in Kashgar and four days on buses so we knew each other well.
Passu, which had looked the end of the earth in pouring rain was discovered to be incredibly beautiful and the Batura Inn on the edge of the huge graveyard of KKH huts was basic but pleasant enough.
The Batura Inn was a tiny oasis in one corner of a vast rectangle of ruined stone huts, which had comprised a large Chinese encampment and construction site between 1968 and 1979, for the building of the Karakorum Highway. The Batura Inn is one of these buildings.
The Hunza River widens at Passu and much of it is a vast area of gravel. As with such river valleys elsewhere in the world, it is regularly windy and when the wind blows the air becomes gritty and difficult to walk into.
John King in my May 1993 Lonely Planet Guide (which has a picture of the Hussaini Bridge on the cover) mentions that Passu is one of the oldest settlements in Hunza and Gojal, a kind of geographical curse has prevented its growing. He says:
As glaciers in the Shimshal Valley periodically dammed the Shimshal River and then broke, floods have gradually torn away Passu’s river front land. The 1974 mudslide at Shishkat Nala in southern Gojal created a lake that submerged parts of the village and choked the valley with sand and gravel. Passu at one time had extensive orchards, a polo field and nearly five times its present population, mostly on land that is no longer there.
In 1995, around the bend from the Batura Inn was a tiny village and a couple of other places to stay. Today, the village has grown, but not by much, however the facilities have improved out of sight as has the Karakorum Highway itself (KKH).
The existence of Lake Abbatabad and its hotels and resorts not far south, which did not exist until the massive landslide in 2010, is partly responsible for this. (And, John King’s description above raises questions as to the permanency of the lake.)
I have included two short videos in further information below by Tim Blight of Urban Duniya to give you an idea of Passu today.
Tim Blight who is an Australian who lives in Lahore says Passu is one of his favourite places in the world. But, he also says that Passu is a cold windy place even in summer.
The key elements that make Passu apart from the river and the amazing Hussaini suspension bridge, are that it lies between two glaciers: the white Passu Glacier and the black Batura Glacier. It also has a marvellous vista of mountains.
The Hand of God
When we left Passu on 16 June 1995, we obtained a lift with an engineer in a new 4WD, near Gulmit we came across an avalanche of snow that had just been cleared off the road.
Above us were bare cliffs that were becoming hot in the sun. There was no snow to be seen. It was as if God had taken a vast ice-cream scoop of snow and flung it down from the heavens. At ground level it was inexplicable.
Not far south of Gulmit is Atta Abad where a massive landslip dammed the Hunza River and created Lake Attabad. The landslip must have been something similar. A gigantic avalanche or rock and earth plunging down from thousands of feet above.
I’ve communicated with locals about the dam and whether it is stable. No one seems to know. Flash floods down the Indus River are well known. Should the natural dam of Lake Attabad fail eventually (as it must), the failure may be a slow process, but I hate to think of the devastation downstream if it isn’t.
The Scary Bridges
On our first day in Passu (14 June, 1995) after resting from our journey and enjoying the marvellous and soporific Batura Inn garden we embarked on the 4-5 hour Zarabad to Hussaini walk, which involved crossing two long suspension bridges.
Both bridges were equally scary because the decking consisted of twisted driftwood with gaps of around 30 cm (~ a foot) or so between them, but some were broken, which meant you had to look down and carefully place your feet. Looking down was okay over the gravel, but once you reached the river the swiftly flowing current was incredibly disorientating. The locals of course had no trouble whatsoever. Beside one of the bridges was the broken skeleton of another, as the photograph shows, which was rather disconcerting as well.
Algernon Durand describes some of these bridges which were rope in the late nineteenth century and much more problematic. He also describes crossing the Indus on rafts at Bunji below Gilgit, which frequently involved accidents, loss of mules, provisions and loss of life. (See Besham to Gilgit, the Terrain.)
Nevertheless, there are a number of videos on Youtube that call the Housaini bridge the most dangerous bridge in the world. They are overstating it. There were until recently many grass and vine bridges around the world that were much more scary, plenty near Australia in Papua New Guinea.
Having watched a few of these most dangerous bridge videos around 2019 to 2020, they look quite staid as the planks are both secure and flat.
It reminds me of the famous scene in the Crocodile Dundee movie 1986 where Paul Hogan says: That’s not a knife. This is a knife! The scene is famous because it begins so innocently and portrays the friendly, trusting and decent nature of the character Mick Dundee.
The bridge was repaired by locals in early 2022. The video of them beginning the repair is quite scary but both are worth watching (below).
John King in the Lonely Planet says: a dramatic narrow track then crossed a sheer rock face to the second bridge. A corner on this track is shown in the photograph. This is called a parri and can be made into a means of defending one’s territory (see below).
King also recommends, once you cross the bridge back to Hussaini, a hitch-hike back to Passu, if possible. We were fortunate that an army truck debouched a mob of soldiers or commandos (mentioned in Rain Danger, Sust) and we were offered a ride in the empty truck back to the Batura Inn.
Traditional Means of Defence in the Mountains
Algernon Durand in his book The Making of a Frontier 1899 set in the last decade of the nineteenth century says that the most marked features of the road throughout the Hindu-Kush are shingle slopes and the parris both of which must be crossed carefully. The shingle slopes are found below any precipice sometimes running up thousands of feet at a steep unbroken angle of 30°.
A “parri” is a cliff, across the face of which the road is carried. These cliffs constantly occur, either where the hills close in on the river, or where a long alluvial fan projects into its bed. Rising sheer from the water in such cases you find generally a precipice of conglomerate. One path is carried across the face of the cliff, a second rises over it. The former, or lower path, is never more than a foot or so wide. Taking advantage of a ledge in the rock here, supported on pegs driven into its face there, carried across a bad place on a single shaky plank or light bundle of tamarisk, ascending fifty feet up a cleft in the rock by a series of small tree-trunks notched to give a foothold, and polished by years of use, the lower path is impossible for animals, and is exclusively used by men on foot, whether carrying loads or not. There is often a sheer drop of a hundred feet from the path on to the rocks below, but I never saw a really dangerous place. …
The upper path toils laboriously up in endless zigzags till it surmounts the cliff, and drops in the same way to meet the lower path on the far side.
Many of these “parris” make capital defensive positions, and have been fought on scores of times: the lower path can be entirely destroyed in a couple of minutes by knocking away a few pegs, and the upper path is commanded at a dozen places by carefully placed sungahs [stone breast-works].
On can destroy the path or readily send an avalanche of rocks onto anyone trying to bridge the parri, or shoot them if they laboriously climb up the upper path.
The defences though formidable could not withstand the determined incursions of a modern army.
Glaciers and Mountains
One can view the mountains around Passu from the KKH on the walk we did across the scary bridges. The mountains that typify Passu are now known as the Passu Cones — a marketing expression, but a good description too of a unique mountain vista. They weren’t called that in 1995. Cathedral Ridge is still used occasionally.
John King in the Lonely Planet Guide says:
The ‘cathedral ridge’ across the river from Passu is called Tupodan (Wakhi for ‘hot rock’ because in winter its slopes shed the snow quickly).
Tupodan is 6106 m (20,300 ft).
The best view of the mountains and the two glaciers on either side of Passu is on the Yunz Valley walk, which John King calls:
A vigorous six to seven hour loop climbs the climbs to the Yunz Valley.
The group of us did the Yunz Valley walk on our second day (15 June, 1995). Although, I don’t recall that it was so long. Perhaps we were fit, or more likely we didn’t do the whole walk and dawdled instead. I do remember that we carried water and our lunch and that we ate on a prominence over-looking the construction camp graveyard and the Batura Inn.
The Passu Glacier was the first we came to. It is rather short 16 km and white because of how it is formed off the mountain, the short distance and perhaps the steepness of flow. Behind the Passu Glacier is Passu Sar or peak 7478 m(24,534 ft) a high peak in the Batura Muztagh the western most sub-range of the Karakorum mountains, as are some of the peaks seen from Karimabad, Hunza Valley. Batura Sar 7795 m (25,574) and Sangemarmar Sar 6949 m (23, 798 ft) are nearby.
Further on, is a view over the Batura Glacier. At 57 km it is one of the largest and longest glaciers outside the polar regions. It is called a black glacier because its surface is covered with a sea of rocks and gravelly moraine.
Passu Sar is the highest peak of the Batura Wall or Passu Massif. The two glaciers arise from the northern wall of this.
These days one can do guided walks and even high-mountain climbing expeditions up Passu Sar readily from Passu.
We reluctantly left Passu next morning.
Three weeks later, I’ve just been reading Kundi Dan by John Fowke 1995 about Dan Leahy and the Leahy brothers in New Guinea and was reminded of scary bridges. The photograph is of a very scary bridge taken on the first expedition into the most populated area of the highlands the Wahgi Valley to Mount Hagen in early April 1933. Now that is a scary bridge!
I’m also reminded of the photograph I took in Japan of a reconstructed vine bridge in my article Autumn in Japan in 2015. Now that is not a scary bridge at all.
Key Words: Passu, Gojal, Pakistan, paradise, scary bridge, glacier, mountains, Passu Cones, Cathedral Ridge, Tupodan, Passu Glacier, Batura Glacier, White glacier, black glacier, Passu Sar, Batura Wall, Passu Massif, Sust, Kashgar, Batura Inn, Karakorum Highway, Hunza River, alluvial fan, scree slope, Zarabad to Hussaini walk, Hussaini suspension bridge, Yunz Valley walk, Batura Muztagh, Karakorum mountains, Karimabad, Hunza Valley, Batura Sar, Sangemarmar Sar, John King, Lonely Planet, Gulmit, Atta Abad, avalanche, landslip, LakeAttabad, Shimshal Valley, parri, sungah, Wakhi
Lonely Planet Guide 1993
John King Karakorum Highway: the High Road to China Lonely Planet 1993
Algernon Durand The Making of a Frontier: Five Years’ Experiences and adventures in Gilgit, Hunza, Nagar, Chitral and the eastern Hindu-Kush, 1899
For a good copy of Algernon Durand The Making of a Frontier 1899 go to the Books category on Mumtaz Hussain’s wonderful site Mahraka on the Cultural, History and Languages of Chitral and the local region based in Chitral. The books and articles are a wonderful selection of historical 19th C British Colonial history and other wonderful things!
Videos on YouTube
Passu Tim Blight
Short Video on Passu by Tim Blight of Urban Dunya.
Short Video on the Passu & Batura Glaciers by Tim Blight of Urban Dunya.
The glaciers are much more accessible for those who con’t want a long walk these days but perhaps less exciting as they were in 1995.
Hussaini Bridge Repairs
Beginning the repair really is quite scary
Whereas the whole process by the Passu Times is more interesting.
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